Turning off Beechy Road into Little Goldsmiths Farm, I drive past a modern grain store to my left and park up in the concrete farmyard. Looking around I see a traditional cluster of former diary buildings that are now home to a community of thriving small businesses.
A group of young craft brewers is kicking a football around in the yard, waiting for more kegs to arrive. I make a beeline for a New Holland tractor and muck spreader and find the farmer – Anthony Becvar. We sit down on a couple of small hay bales opposite the old silage clamp to chat.
I learn he is the third generation to farm at Little Goldsmiths. His grandfather, Gustav Becvar, came over from his native Czechoslovakia to buy the now 200-acre farm in 1938. He ran a pedigree herd of Dairy Shorthorns and was keen on showing his stock, said Anthony.
He died in 1952 and his father John Becvar returned from studying agriculture at Reading University to take over, working with his brother Dick until the early1960s when John switched breeds to pedigree Friesians and carried on dairying by himself until 1999.
By then the milk price was too low to warrant investment in the old buildings and expand the herd, so John decided to get out of dairy farming. He bred heifers and trained them through the old milking parlour for sales in the north and ran around 60 beef crosses. At the time Anthony was at Wye College, studying agriculture.
He graduated in 2001 and unfortunately later that year his father died.
The animals were sold, and with the farm buildings now vacant the family approached a neighbouring farm, which had diversified into commercial lets, for some advice on doing something similar. Before long they had their first tenants, bringing in a vital extra income.
At that time, they were contracting out their best land to a local arable farmer, renting the remaining pasture to a local livestock farmer.
Heeding his father’s advice to “get a job, as the farm won’t pay you”, Anthony has had a ‘nine to five’ since leaving university and currently works as a tree officer for East Sussex County Council.
He manages the farm in his spare time and over the years has gradually taken on more of the arable duties, working closely with the contract farmer before he retired.
“He used to take all our grain and sell it with his,” he said. So when he retired in 2013, Anthony took the decision to build a new grain store and began buying his own kit.
“We’ve become more independent and less reliant on contractors and the aim is to be far less reliant on commercial inputs – which are volatile to the soil and plants as well as in price and supply,” he said.
Over the past few years soil health has become a major focus, having struggled with the weather and crop failure.
Their soil is mainly Wealden clay and used to be very “marginal”, he said. Over the past 20 years they’ve worked hard to improve it through minimum tillage, only using the plough when necessary.
“When you put the plough in the ground you tend to turn over yellow sticky stuff and you’re back to square one immediately,” he explained.
“We’ve had some good crops and can produce quality at harvest, but it’s all starting to move in the other direction. We’ve taken advantage of the soils and we’ve not been putting anything back in. With the weather being more unpredictable and extreme, the chances of ideal establishment, growing seasons and harvests are getting fewer and we need the farm and the soils to be flexible to adapt to this.
“We’ve always sold the straw off the field to a local beef farmer. He’s been good – pays on the dot and collects it straight behind the combine. Because of that we’ve been reliant on bagged fertilisers,” he said.
It’s really shown in the past four years, he said. The clay is difficult to work because it’s either too wet or too dry. Sometimes the weather is kind and great seedbeds can be achieved, but more often than not there are compromises.
“Our best land about a mile down the road is a sandy silt loam and is now slumping and capping every winter. We’ve just been taking the organic matter out of it and not replaced it,” he said.
“We’ve had channels carved out of it – we’ve not seen erosion on this farm before and now we’re seeing it.”
A turning point and learning a new approach to farming
“I’m still young and I want to continue farming for some time. I want my kids to have the opportunity to carry on. I’m the third generation and I don’t want to be the last,” he said.
Anthony has been growing group two milling wheats, hitting specs and getting premiums. But the cost of doing that has been an increased reliance on nitrogen and higher stress levels on the soils, on the plants and the pest burden, he said.
“I’m quite happy growing group three or group four wheats now and not having to whip it to chase premiums which might not be achievable simply due to the weather at harvest,” he went on. “By doing that it gives me a bit more flexibility mucking about with seed rates and drilling timing. Even mixing varieties, things like that.
“Having done a three-year degree in agriculture – in a conventional approach it’s not like I’m taking a step backwards. It’s like learning a new degree – I’m now going to learn how to do it another way. It’s just learning a new approach. The whole eco system approach to things, with the soil food web constantly in mind, and doing the best for the soil so that the crops I grow are the healthiest they can be.
“I’m not knocking agronomists and advisers; they’re essential, but when someone says ‘you’ve got this disease or pest and you need to spray this’ most of the time we just do it with no thought about the fragile soil symbioses between the plant and soil microbiology that would be affected.
“Soil is not an inert substrate for us as farmers to use infinitely. We know, for example, that adding organic matter benefits soil. But many don’t know why and how complex the role of organic matter is – and that with continued mechanical working and inorganic chemical applications, the benefit of added organic matter is massively reduced.”
Twitter community and doing things differently
Twitter has been a lifeline in terms of getting in touch with other regenerative farmers, said Anthony.
Reading up more and being pointed in different directions by people like organic dairy farmer Dan Burdett (who was featured in South East Farmer back in October 2019) and regenerative agricultural consultant Niels Corfield, has given him the confidence to try doing things differently and ask more questions.
“I stopped spraying insecticides last year, partly because I keep bees on the farm. Insecticides are pretty broad spectrum – we’re hoping to kill the pest but we’re also killing the pest’s predator too,” Anthony said.
“By not spraying insecticides you allow the predator population of the pest to increase and that will forever control the pests. It’s putting your faith in it. For years we’ve put faith in agronomic advice and chemicals. Sometimes you see results, sometimes you don’t and sometimes you’re spraying preventatively for a pest or disease, and if you don’t see it, you have to believe it worked because you spent money on it.
“Last year I let a lot of arable weeds back in around the margins and the improvement in insect life was immeasurable. It may not be linked after just one year, but we’ve got nightingales, yellowhammers and linnets as well as many other birds back on the farm. It’s nature’s way of giving you a little thumbs up,” he said.
He understands that a lot of farmers who have been farming the same way for 30 to 40 years and getting consistent yields might find it difficult to understand the need to change. Shifting focus on the soil health as much as on plant health takes a bit of a leap of faith, he explained.
“I’m very lucky in that I make the decisions. Mum has still got the cheque book but it’s one line of thinking and I’ve only got 110 acres of arable. It’s only me making the decisions and taking responsibility for the outcomes. The income from the commercial lets means that financially we are pretty stable, which allows me to take a few risks.
“Varietal choice and end market access are still very important. There are people out there breeding new varieties of cereals for us and we have new varieties coming out every year, some of which have greater abilities to fight disease – you can choose them on a score rating.
“Much of the time the yield score is the priority for choice, and justifiably if you have a good agronomist and a wide variety of pesticides on the market. However, I want to put varieties that have better breeding for disease resistance to the test in a lower input system.”
This season’s winter wheat so far hasn’t received any fungicides. One field has only had a pre-em herbicide treatment.
Anthony explained: “One of the biggest steps is having a far higher tolerance of some pests. We have to follow IPM (integrated pest management) for crop assurance. How far individual farmers take this is down to them, but to me farming regeneratively is taking a step beyond IPM by adding a soil health principle to the general principles*.
“Every time I put a chemical on it, yes it might remove that problem, but everything stresses the plant. Even nitrogen – crops love it, they grow, but over-application, poor application or poor timing can cause stresses that can then bring forward fungal diseases, insect pests, lodging and other issues, and this can lead to a vicious cycle of input use.
“With everything I do now, my first thought is: ‘how will this affect the soil and the soil microbiology?’”
After every application of pesticide or fertiliser, Anthony sprays on a carbon source to buffer the soil.
Farming is a lot about looking above the soil, said Anthony.
“I’m really focusing on what’s underneath. Our soil came from rock. It’s just geology. The only thing that took it from rock to something we could grow crops in is bacteria and fungi. If we neglect them or kill them then the soil will revert to geology.”
He adds that understanding the relationship between the soil and plants is key to making improvements.
“It’s the plant roots that feed the fungi by exuding carbohydrates which they produce through photosynthesis. How do you feed the fungi? It’s not just a case of chucking organic matter at it, because organic matter is made up of very complex carbohydrates – your chopped straw or muck.
“It takes a long time for that to break down far enough to feed the fungi, and it may never reach that state. What the fungi want is the sugars which come out of the roots of the crop. It’s not an easy fix – the best way is to have plants in the ground and look after them, not to spray fungicides and not having fungicides coated on the seed. You’ve got to create the bond, not disturb the soil and break it.”
Introducing more cover crops
“On the farm we used to spring crop, but we’ve been solely winter cropping for the past seven or eight years,” Anthony said. “The spring can be a difficult time to move the soil here as it can go from being too wet to too dry in 24 hours.
“Hence we’ve recently gone with winter cropping, but for the past few winters it’s not been as easy as that. With the black grass pressure everyone says you’ve got to drill late and three years ago we missed the boat completely.”
To help improve the soil, Anthony is growing more year-round cover crops, planting them after harvest and working with a local livestock farmer to graze them off the following summer.
“I can be growing vetch, rye, phacelia, radish, mustard, oats, turnips – the more the merrier really – and I can tailor it to be more grazable. We can graze it hard over the summer and then spray it off. Some of the plants have long tap roots which can break down through soil pans – that’s like me running the subsoiler through, only I have living material doing the work for me,” he said.
“We can also grow winter-only cover crops which can be terminated in the spring and sown into. This year we’re growing spring barley in the ground where the wheat failed. Fortunately, I had time to plant some cover. Growing cover crops gives me the option of direct drilling, which would be better than direct drilling into cereal stubble on our soil.
“There’s lots of different things you could do and the only way to find out is if I try it. Having the balls to give it a go is the first hurdle to jump.”
Trialing new methods
To improve his soils he recently bought a second-hand sprayer to apply compost teas and humic and fulvic acid on his crops and soils. He also bought a muck spreader and is working with a local beef farmer, swapping straw for muck, and another local farmer who supplies him with horse manure from nearby stables.
To create his own compost, he is also taking solids from their old slurry lagoon and mixing it with old hay, the imported muck and wood chip from their resident tree surgeon and turning it with his telehandler. This year he intends to trial the Bokashi composting method, which involves not aerating the heap, but adding a fungi/bacteria mix and covering it, he said. The end product is a carbon and nutrient dense form of compost.
He has also tried adding freeze-dried mycorrhizal fungi in the seed drill with the wheat seed, so it goes down the slot with it, but this can be an expensive method. Instead, for this autumn, he is creating a Johnson/Su bioreactor, which is another composting method but one that can create a liquid full of beneficial fungi and bacteria that can be used as a seed dressing.
“So straight away it forms a bond with the plant roots,” he said. “The cereal seed is recleaned only or saved and cleaned with no fungicide treatments added. This year I have wheat saved from last season that I will have cleaned and dressed with my own homemade treatment ready for this autumn.”
Another regenerative method he is trialing is companion-cropping.
He explained: “last May we broadcast clover into a standing wheat crop, with the idea that after harvest I could direct drill a cover crop into it and the soil would have had continuous cover and live root activity.
“Needless to say, it didn’t work; the crop was already too established and closed up. Not quite enough light. Saying that, it was there. I was close. Next time I will sow my crop of wheat and then broadcast it on so they grow up together.”
The grassland will be managed more regeneratively as well. The ground has been mown for hay and grazed extensively with sheep, but alongside what the animals have excreted, only a bit of bagged nitrogen has been added to the soil.
The homemade compost and soil sprays will also make it onto the grass, which will now be grazed in more of a mob or cell grazed style, with longer rest periods. Anthony will also look at creating a more diverse sward with direct drill herbal ley mixes, which should help give some extra drought tolerance to the clay soil, make for a more nutritious sward and help improve soil health and fertility.
“In farming, trialing takes a long time as you only get one shot at it per year. This is why I’m really at the very beginning of this journey,” he said.
Anthony showed me an impressive looking cover crop growing outside his grain store.
“Last autumn I drilled 30 acres of this cover crop. It didn’t take very well as I probably drilled too late. We had a lot of blackgrass come up through it. So I’ve had to resow that 30 acres again this spring. All that discing, power harrowing, drilling, rolling – it was all a waste of time.
“What I did do was chuck some of the seed that didn’t go in the drill on the side of the farm drive here. This is soil that’s never been moved. It’s never had a problem with drying out because it’s always had living roots in it. The fungi and bacteria are always being fed; there’s healthy populations of it and what’s growing here is proof of that,” he said.
“My plan is to make the soil central to my farming operations, the one thing that matters most. I’m aiming to follow the five principles of regenerative agriculture* as best I can to create a soil that can sustain crops long into the future without a heavy reliance on inputs. This will hopefully mean that it can sustain the next generation of Becvars at Little Goldsmiths.”